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The Bible says animals are part of salvation history--and hints that humans, as their spiritual leaders, shouldn't eat them.

Interview with Dr. Stephen Webb

Dr. Stephen H. Webb is a professor of religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., and the chairperson of the international Christian Vegetarian Association. The author of Good Eating: The Bible, Diet, and the Proper Love of Animals, Webb describes himself as an "evangelical theologian" whose vegetarian lifestyle is biblically based. He spoke with Beliefnet recently about reading the Bible "with the eyes of animal compassion."

How did you become involved in the Christian vegetarianism movement?

I started thinking about animals when I started thinking about the daschund who sat on my lap as I read and wrote. I made the step a lot of people make: if my dog had so much value, how could I think other animals had no value?

I started reading the Bible again from a perspective of compassion for animals, and I felt like I was reading it for the first time. I discovered a whole world of passages about animals.

The trick is to see the Bible framed in terms of God's love for all of creation and the shared destiny of humans and animals. Animals are a crucial part of God's creation. They're there when animals are shown in heaven in the great visions of the prophets.

In your book, you don't lay down any hard-and-fast rules, but you say we should spiritually evolve to a place where we're not eating a lot of meat.

I would say that vegetarianism is the diet of hope, an eschatological diet. It's not morally obligatory, though it's morally commendable, because it's an impossible diet. No matter what we eat, we're going to take away food from other animals. Even if we turn all of America into cropland we will inflict suffering on animals because you have to keep animals out of the field.

One problem with vegetarianism is that it often gives rise to self-righteousness, a sense of holier-than-thou purity. It can be schismatic, which I think is why the church has seldom embraced it.

It's a diet of witnessing to your hope that, in the end, God will restore the entire world to God's original intentions. That God will redeem humans and animals alike.

Redeem animals from what? Not their own sins?

You have to rethink heaven. It's not just for people who sin--it's for any creature who has suffered, whose life has been incomplete, who's been a victim. Heaven is about the restoration of all things to their original goodness.

I wouldn't want to go around judging everyone who eats meat, but I do think vegetarianism is an act that witnesses to our faith.

When you say that the Bible mentions animals in heaven, do you mean a verse like "the lion shall lie down with the lamb"?

In the Hebrew prophets, definitely. A lot of people know that Isaiah passage, but there are many more such passages in Amos, Micah, and Ezekiel that portray the Kingdom of God as a restoration of the world to its Edenic state. It portrays that world as entailing peace between humans and animals, not just peace between humans.

I interpret the four "living beings" who surround the throne of the Lamb in Revelation as evidence that heaven will be populated with non-human species. Some Bible translations say "creatures," but the Greek is zoon--it clearly should be animals.

So when the kingdom of God comes, animals and humans will be together?

Yes. There is a Bible passage that says "You save humans and animals alike, O Lord" (Psalm 36:6). And Jesus not only drove the animal sellers out of the temple, but he compared God's creation to a hen taking care of her chicks.

I thought Jesus was driving out the moneychangers?

Mark says they had turned the temple into a "den of robbers." That's where you get the idea that Jesus was angry at the economic transactions. But if you read Matthew 21 and Luke 19, it's also very explicit that Jesus drove out the animals from the temple.

We often forget that the temple was a slaughterhouse. The main point of it was to be a place where animals could be sacrificed to mediate humanity's relationship with the divine.

The point was to lay your hand on an animal. Many scholars think that symbolized the transfer of sin or guilt to the animal. Then the priest would sacrifice the animal. There were also complicated regulations about the blood. So the temple would have been a loud, noisy, and bloody place, full of the sound of animals dying. It would have sickened most people today.

So Jesus goes there to cleanse it and run out the animal sellers. That scene has been interpreted as Jesus not wanting the temple polluted with money. But when you read the text with the eyes of animal compassion, it's clear that Jesus is putting an end to animal sacrifices. In one of the gospels it says Jesus drove out the animal sellers and the animals--it's almost like he's freeing the animals.

Is this about Christians no longer needing to adhere to Mosaic law?

Jesus quotes from Hosea, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." He continues the prophetic critique of the temple sacrifices.

It almost sounds like you're setting up a conflict between the "rule" books--like Leviticus--and the Hebrew prophetic books in terms of how to treat animals.

I don't want to do that, because so much of the Levitical commandments have to do with animal compassion. The Sabbath regulations applied to domestic animals. Why does the text mention the cattle? It could have just said, "Let everyone take the day off." It's interesting that the cattle are enumerated.

There are many such rules: An ox and ass are not to be yoked together since the difference between them would put a strain on the weaker one. Mother cattle are not to be slaughtered on the same day as their young (Lev 22:28)--which would cause anxiety to the mother.

A lot of people say that's just some obscure law. "Why should God care if the mother and offspring are killed on the same day? Thank goodness we Christians have overcome these superstitious rituals!" But if you read it with the eyes of animal compassion, you start piecing together a real pattern. For example, you're obligated to help your neighbor's donkey if it falls under too heavy a load. The rabbis read that text to mean that you should help any animal that looks to be in distress. I think Jesus read the text the same way.

Another example is the manna in the wilderness, when the Israelites were fleeing Egypt. God gave them a diet. God provided them with something white and fluffy that tasted something like coriander seed.

But didn't God also give them quail?

The manna was clearly a non-animal diet, and some people got tired of it. Numbers 11:4 reads "if only we had meat to eat�" They longed for the "fleshpots of Egypt," which quite literally means the abattoirs, the places where animals were sacrificed. God gets angry with this and sends them a ton of quail to eat. When you read it from an animal-compassion perspective, it's almost like God is saying, "You want meat? I'll give you so much meat it will make you sick. That's how I feel about your desire for meat."

Sure enough, it happens. Number 11:34 says that God struck the ungrateful people with the plague and they had to bury "the people who had the craving."

Some people would read that story naturalistically, saying maybe the quail carried disease. And I would say, yeah. But look what the story says: God gave the people a vegetarian diet. The people weren't satisfied.

The image of manna gets picked up in Jesus' teaching. He often talks of himself being the bread of life. When he had an ideal meal with his disciples, it was a frugal dinner of bread and wine.

But wasn't it likely that they would have eaten lamb at a Passover meal? Wasn't it a traditional part of the meal?

It was, but there's no mention of lamb in the gospel accounts. I think the omission is intentional. To me, it makes sense that they didn't eat lamb at the Last Supper. Why? Because here was Jesus: he'd just gone to the temple and driven out the animals, he'd just said the temple would be destroyed. He brought disciples together to tell them the secret of his ministry: that he was going to be the last sacrifice. That he was going to be killed like an animal, and that the mystery of his death would somehow bring an end to the need for the sacrificial system. People would have a more direct and immediate access to God through his death, and would no longer need to sacrifice animals in order to placate God.

When he said "This is the blood of the new covenant," I think it would have been ridiculous if he'd had lamb sitting there. Serving lamb would have made a mockery of his own death.

In your book, you seem to say that fish are a slightly different case--they're not bloody, for one thing. The gospel tells the story of the loaves and fishes, and we see Jesus eating fish after his resurrection, after he's presumably put an end to the sacrificial system, as you say. How does that fit with your theory?

The only time we see him eating fish is in the post-resurrection accounts. Many scholars argue that those are later additions to the gospels.

You'd rather see Jesus not resurrected than eating fish?

[Laughs] No, I believe in the resurrection. But the point of those stories is to persuade the readers that Jesus was fully resurrected, and what better way than to show him eating fish.

But I have no problem thinking Jesus ate fish. If he had been a strict vegetarian, he would have sent the wrong message to his followers. Vegetarianism at the time of Jesus meant Gnostic dualism.

Meaning the spirit is good and matter is bad.

Exactly. People who were vegetarian at the time of Jesus-and there were a lot--were so based on either superstition or denial of the goodness of the earth. Heretics like the Manicheans tended to be vegetarian. Their superstitious reasons included a belief in the reincarnation of souls, or that animal souls could be demons, and if you eat an animal you let a demon into your body. That seemed to be a common belief.

How does that fit into Jesus sending a demon into the pigs?

It doesn't say that Jesus sent the pigs over the cliff.

So you're saying Satan sent the pigs over the cliff.

Yes, clearly. Jesus did not destroy those pigs. In the ancient world, it was believed you could not send demons into inanimate matter. If Jesus was going to cure the man, the demons had to be sent somewhere. You could argue that is the lesser of two evils.

I don't believe animals are of equal worth to humans. If you have to make a decision between a human life and an animal life, you should value human life higher. Some animal rights activists would disagree with that.

In your book, you say Adam and Eve ate a vegetarian diet.

Yes, it's clear that they're given fruits and nuts and are not given animals to eat. They're not eaten until after the Fall.

So the term 'dominion' in Genesis didn't refer to eating the animals.

Right, because the commandment that they were to eat fruit of trees comes after they're given dominion. So the dominion over animals couldn't mean they could eat them. I continue to be amazed that most Christians today refuse to acknowledge that. In the ancient world, that was common knowledge. It made sense: there was no fire, no need for animal sacrifice, no spilling of blood. Eden was a paradise; it was a perfect ecosystem.

As part of this theological idea of dominion, you think it's OK to own pets.

Part of my running battle with some of the extreme animal rights advocates is the idea that animals have the same rights as humans. I do think humans are placed on this planet to be stewards of God's creation; we have moral authority over animals. I don't think it's wrong to own animals. In fact, I think it's the destiny of all animals to end up as pets.

Isaiah says in the end time the "lion and lamb will lie down together." They'll obviously be friends--in a sense, domesticated.

So you think human beings will lead the animal kingdom to a point where animals will be friends?

Yes, and I think that's already happening. We are to be spiritual leaders towards the animals; we're responsible for them. Obviously we can't change all of their diets, but we can try to minimize suffering in the wild. We save animals when there are hurricanes and floods; we separate animals who might kill each other.

So you think humans, using their divinely-given dominion over animals, could spiritually guide a deer and a wolf not to be at each other's throats--many centuries down the line?

I think that that is the destiny of planet Earth. The number of wild areas in the world are decreasing rapidly. The number of places where animals can battle each other are diminishing rapidly.

By managing animals, we're making the world more holy?

It's one of the tasks of humans. We can't completely save the world--only God can. But as ambassadors of God, as stewards of his creation, we can begin to do now what God will finish later. And we are doing that now: we're making nature a less violent place by domesticating animals--dogs, cats, birds. What are zoos but places where animals flourish without having to eat each other?

So you approve of zoos.

Yes I do. It's not a popular position among many animal rightists. In well-run zoos, they can live longer, healthier lives without having to kill or be killed.

When we die, what will we experience in terms of animals?

I don't know, but I think the pet relationship gives us a glimpse of that. The intensity and passion that people experience with their companion animals has such depth, that that's a window onto the next life. Many people have written me about their companion animals, and were so disappointed when they did not get any affirmation from their ministers or priests.

Here at Beliefnet, it's been a big question for users: Will pets go to heaven?

My book has a whole chapter about that, a nuanced position. If God saves us, God will save animals. God's salvation is not just about humans, it's about justice. All who have suffered will be restored to God's original intention. That definitely includes animals. Animals in heaven will be a gift to us, a circle of life that will have great harmony and joy. It's what it was before the Fall, and what it will be again someday.

Interview by Laura Sheahen
 


 

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